A 'Lincoln Scholar' Comes Clean

Historian William Marvel is a past winner of the Lincoln Prize and the Douglas Southall Freeman Award for his scholarship. The author of Lee’s Last Retreat, Andersonville, and A Place Called Appomattox is described by the renowned Steven Sears as "The Civil War’s master historical detective." He is also unique among all the "Lincoln scholars" who I have read in that his books do NOT read like defense briefs in The War Crimes Trial of Abraham Lincoln, filled with hundreds of bizarre rationalizations for every odious or barbaric act. Instead, they read like they are written by a man searching for historical truth.

Marvel’s 2006 book, Mr. Lincoln Goes to War, says this on the inside cover: "Marvel leads the reader inexorably to the conclusion that Lincoln not only missed opportunities to avoid war but actually fanned the flames — and often acted quite unconstitutionally in prosecuting the war once it had begun." This is obviously not how to win another "Lincoln Prize."

The book is about Lincoln’s entire first year in office. It accurately portrays Lincoln’s henchman William Seward not as some Great Statesman but as "a coward & a sneak." Marvel does not hide the fact, as most other Lincoln "scholars" do, that Seward, on Lincoln’s instructions, orchestrated the passing through the U.S. Senate of a "constitutional amendment specifically prohibiting congressional interference with slavery" in the South. The Amendment, known as the Corwin Amendment, did pass the House and Senate before Lincoln’s inauguration. In his first inaugural address Lincoln explicitly pledged his support for the amendment. In that speech Lincoln also said that there need be "no bloodshed" unless a state refused to pay the tariff tax, which had just been doubled (the Morrill Tariff) two days before Lincoln’s inauguration. Since the Southern states that had seceded had no intention of paying taxes to the U.S. government any more than they intended to pay them to the British government, this was an explicit threat of war over tax collection.

Unlike all other Lincoln "scholars" who simply ignore this fact, preferring to dwell instead on atheistic Abe’s flaky religious rhetoric, Marvel states the truth: "Lincoln’s address drew [an] ominous reaction across the South. Moderate newspapers strained for hopeful interpretations, but the Richmond Dispatch read it as a declaration of war because of the implied threat of coercion." South Carolinians "translated Lincoln’s denial of the right of secession [in the speech] and his refusal to yield federal facilities [which the South offered to pay for] as a solemn promise to subjugate the Confederacy."

Another fact that Marvel, unlike all other Lincoln "scholars," does not shy away from is the fact that there was overwhelming support in the North in early 1861 for peaceful secession. He quotes newspapers in New York, Washington, Illinois, Delaware, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere as saying so. He also notes that there was a strong movement to form a "central Confederacy" involving New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey (See The Secession Movement in the Middle States by William C. Wright). All of this shows that most Americans, unlike Dishonest Abe, understood that the union was voluntary and not held together by the threat of mass murder, looting, pillaging, plundering, and the burning of entire cities.

Lincoln’s decision to incite a war had nothing to do with freeing slaves, writes Marvel. "[H]e gambled [by resupplying Fort Sumter] on provoking a war to assure the dominance of federal authority." Marvel also understands that the real Lincoln was no Great Statesman but a most ordinary, Illinois machine politician who had maneuvered himself into the White House where he fully intended to continue his machine politician’s ways. "The president interested himself in the most minor patronage of his cabinet members, annoying his attorney general by interfering even in the assignment of federal marshals." He was an early day Governor Blagojevich, in other words, a "pay or play" politician.

Lincoln’s objective at Fort Sumter, writes Marvel, was to "launch a patriotic frenzy" in the North as a prelude to waging total war on his own country. The "frenzy" was not exactly spontaneous, and not as "patriotic" as the Lincoln "scholars" contend. The Republican Party orchestrated mayhem in cities throughout the North:

Perceived reluctance and insincerity [to invade and murder their fellow citizens] led Unionist mobs to descend on dissident businesses and individuals, demanding nationalistic demonstrations. Pennsylvania mobs destroyed the offices of dissenting newspapers, forced business owners to adorn their buildings with flags, and intimidated political figures into public expressions of Unionism. In New York City a resident described an absolute u2018despotism of opinion’ in which considerations of personal safety discouraged any unflattering remarks about the Lincoln administration or government policy.

And they say fascism began in Europe in the 1920s. Furthermore, Republican Party "orators" saw to it that "listeners came to have their hearts steeped in hatred" toward their fellow citizens of the Southern states, as "speakers competed for the most venomous denunciations of all things Southern." German immigrant Carl Schurtz informed Mid-Westerners that "all the world wants to march" to war. Any who disagreed, writes Marvel, "risked physical violence." The Lincoln "scholars" call this "national unity."

Marvel describes in chapter and verse how Lincoln ordered the arrest of the Maryland legislature (in a chapter entitled "The Despot’s Heel") despite the constitutional requirement that the states be assured a representative form of government, and how he ignored the Southern peace commissioners who sought a compromise. He also recognizes the importance of Lincoln’s illegal suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus, which was followed by the imprisonment of at least 13,000 Northern political dissenters without any due process. "Without that repression, later war measures, like the imposition of direct federal conscription for military service, might not have survived public opposition to become fixtures contradictory to a free society."

When the public did protest the revocation of their personal liberties, "Lincoln responded to the public outcry with more severe repression . . . and with more audacious examples of it," in fine Stalinist fashion. Soon he "would grow sufficiently confident to wield unilateral authority and military might against the most fundamental elements of democracy, imprisoning duly elected representatives of the people, arresting opposition candidates, and u2018monitoring’ elections with soldiers . . ." Think of these actions the next time you read one of Lincoln’s pretty speeches about government "of the people and by the people."

Lincoln "scholars" can never, ever mention the possibility that the U.S., like all the other countries of the world in the nineteenth century that ended slavery (including the British and Spanish empires, the French, Danes, Swedes, Dutch, and others), could have done so peacefully and in a relatively short amount of time. For by doing so they would be admitting that there was an alternative to having the federal government murder some 350,000 fellow citizens in the 1860s, the equivalent of 3.5 million deaths today standardizing for today’s population. That’s why today’s Lincoln "scholars" devote inordinate time and effort to repeating Lincoln’s religious rhetoric while ignoring so many of the plain facts of history. Lincoln covered up his war crimes with a masterful use of religious rhetoric; his modern-day excuse makers are merely following his lead.

Not Marvel. "[P]eaceful emancipation on some scale seems at least to have been feasible," he writes. "The repeal of the fugitive slave laws would have encouraged even more slaves to escape . . . further weakening the institution. . ." Furthermore, "just as isolation hastened the end of apartheid government in South Africa, the international stigma and external economic pressures of an increasingly enlightened world ought eventually to have driven Confederates . . . to a voluntary abolition . . ." This of course is how slavery was ended in the Northern states — voluntarily and for mostly economic reasons, supplemented with the beginnings of a moral crusade.

For those who are wading through the putrid swamp of Lincoln "scholarship" that seems to have exploded in recent months thanks to Abe’s 200th birthday, and are seeking something other than yet another bundle of doubletalk and circular reasoning, read Lincoln Goes to War and its sequel, Lincoln’s Darkest Year: The War in 1862, by William Marvel.